Managing 21st century game in the Indo-Pacific region

Dr. Renato Cruz de Castro, Trustee and Convenor of the National Security and East Asian Affairs Program, Stratbase ADR Institute

On May 16, 2018, President Rodrigo Duterte signed the Philippines’ first National Security Strategy (NSS) since the country became an independent republic in 1946. The NSS is an upshot of the Duterte administration’s 2017-2022 National Security Policy.

The 70-page document integrates the government’s security objective and course of actions into a systematic roadmap for the achievement of the national security visions. It provides a blueprint for the coordination, cohesion, and synchronization of the government’s various and sometime competing functions to improve efficiency and to maximize the utilization of the nation’s limited resources.

For the first time in the country’s political history, a single government document articulates its national security interests, its intention to develop the country’s comprehensive national capabilities, and the need to harness the people to support their government’s security policies in the light of the changing and dangerous Indo-Pacific region.

The NSS paints a realist picture of the country’s external environment. It takes into account that the country is still confronted by several internal armed conflicts that remain as the government’s primary security challenges. However, it also brings to the public’s attention the country’s external environment, which has been rapidly changing and becoming more dangerous.

It notes that while the Philippines has not been confronted by any direct threat of foreign aggression since the end of the Second World, the current regional security environment has become uncertain.

The NSS warns the Filipino nation that Pax America is unraveling in light of the geo-strategic competition among great powers and the transformation of the international order from a unipolar to a multipolar one.

The 2018 NSS presents three important issues concerning the country’s external security environment:

1. The perils of traditional geo-strategic threats—competing interests of great powers and other countries converge, and which requires the Philippines to chart its role in an increasingly multi-polar system.

2. The need for the Philippines to be fully equipped not only to deter potential aggressors but also to protect the archipelago from international terrorists, pandemics, transnational crimes and natural disasters.

3. The need for the Philippines to develop a credible defense capability and to strengthen its comprehensive strategic alliances or cooperation with its friends and security partners in the international community.

Traditional geo-strategic threat: the U.S.-China strategic rivalry

The new 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy  labeled China and Russia as revisionist powers and rivals of the U.S. that are seeking to erode U.S. security and prosperity. Washington has been alarmed by China’s broadening and deepening economic, diplomatic, and strategic efforts aimed to ease the U.S. out of the Indo-Pacific region.

Consequently, the Trump administration is pushing back against China, fully aware that the U.S. still possesses substantial military and economic capabilities that are far greater than its competitor.

The Trump administration’s strategy is to maneuver China into an unfavorable strategic/diplomatic position, frustrate its efforts, and preclude its options while expanding America’s strategic/diplomatic space and forcing its competitor to confront the possibility of military conflict under adverse conditions.

The current U.S. policy of engaging China in a strategic competition will set back the hands of time to the U.S.-Sino conflict in the early years of the Cold War, when American and Chinese values, interests, and polices were simply adversarial without any convergence.

However, this 21st Sino-U.S. competition is different because both countries’ material/technological capabilities and global reach are considerably greater than they were in the 1950s.

Responding to the changing Indo-Pacific region

Duterte has supported the AFP modernization program that began during President Benigno Aquino III’s term as the latter’s administration`s challenge to China’s maritime expansion in the South China Sea.

Aquino increased the 2017 defense budget by 15 percent and the supplemental allocation for the AFP modernization program from P20 billion (US$400 million) to P25 billion (US$500 million), approved the acquisition of two guided-missile frigates from South Korea, and received five former Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force TC-90 reconnaissance aircraft for the Philippine Navy (PN). He also approved the Second Horizon of the revised AFP modernization program that will cost the Philippine government P300 billion (US$6 billion) from 2018 to 2022.

Duterte’s decision to bankroll the second phase of the 15th year AFP modernization program entails an ambitious transition period wherein the AFP will shift its arms acquisition away from internal security to territorial defense. This required the build-up of the capabilities of the PN and Philippine Air Force (PAF).

Interestingly, Duterte is bankrolling the expensive build-up of the AFP’s territorial defense capabilities notwithstanding the Philippines’ rapprochement with China.

The Duterte administration has also decided to maintain formal security relationship with the U.S. despite its earlier pronouncements of an independent foreign policy. However, it has refocused the alliance away from a strategy of balancing an emergent China to Humanitarian Assistance and Risk Reduction and Counter-Terrorism. It has also fostered security partnerships with Japan, Australia and South Korea. These three American allies are currently helping the Philippine military develop specific capabilities.

These efforts to develop the country’s credible defense capabilities and strengthen the country’s security partnerships with its traditional partners, however, are not without challenges. Both the PN and PAF are in a very tight financial spot because of years of underfunding; both services will have to compete with Philippine Army (PA) for their rightful share of the defense budget; and sooner than later the AFP and the DND will encounter the “butter versus guns dilemma.”

The defense budget will have to compete with other government priorities, including the government’s populist programs such as free tertiary education, the “Build, Build, Build” program, and the shift to a federal system of government.

Finally, the Duterte administration’s efforts to appease China in exchange for Chinese loans to fund the country’s massive infrastructure building program makes the Philippines complicit to its long-term strategy of maritime expansion aimed at pushing the U.S. out of the region. This will also upset the current balance of power leading to the intensification of U.S.-China strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific region.


This article was originally published in

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